Moral Dilemma, 1938-39

President Obama and his administration believe Syrian government officials ordered the use of chemical weapons on opposition fighters and civilians (children, women, and men) in the Syrian civil war. Hundreds, if not more than 1,000, people died. United Nations’ inspectors are analyzing evidence taken from the attack site. The weapons are missiles loaded with poison gas. The President is trying to convince the civilized world to respond and said, “The world drew a line” that forbids the use of such weapons. This moral dilemma being played out in the political sphere reminded me of another such dilemma that involved the late Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Lowell. The text is reprinted from information sources wikipedia, (American Immigration Law Foundation, now American Immigration Council), (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), and The ailf site has an education kit for classroom debate built around the issue.—PM


“U. S. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Lowell was one of the first members of Congress to speak out against Adolf Hitler‘s treatment of Jews. The expulsion of Jews from Germany without proper papers caused a refugee crisis in 1938, and after the Evian Conference failed to lift immigration quotas in the 38 participating nations, she co-sponsored the Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill with Senator Robert F. Wagner. Provoked by the events of Kristallnacht, the bill was proposed by New York Democratic Sen. Robert F. Wagner, a German American, and Rogers. Its goal was to enable 20,000 German Jewish refugee children to enter the United States over a two-year period.

“In November 1938, the brutality of the Nazi regime toward the Jews of Germany reached a fevered pitch with “Kristallnact,” or “The Night of Broken Glass.” On that night, gangs of Nazi thugs terrorized Jewish communities all over Germany, setting fires to synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses, breaking in windows of Jewish-owned shops, beating and killing Jews and committing other acts of brutality. Fifty thousand Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps, five hundred synagogues were destroyed and the Jewish community of Germany was forced to pay one billion reichmarks ($400,000,000) for the damage. While America had been generally unwilling to create any special programs to welcome refugees from the Nazi regime during the 1930’s, Kristallnacht gained international attention and created a wave of American sympathy towards the victims of Nazi terror.

“The bill was toppled by the negative attitude of President Roosevelt, coupled with the anti- Semitism of members of Congress (especially Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina). Introduced to the Senate on February 9, 1939 and to the House on February 14, it would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish refugees under the age of 14 to settle in the United States. The bill was supported by religious and labor groups, and the news media, but was strongly opposed by patriotic groups who believed “charity begins at home.” Organizations favoring restrictive immigration strongly claimed that the refugee children would deprive American children of aid.  After rancorous 1938 elections in the House and Senate, Congress had turned conservative, and despite provisions requiring the children to be supported by private individuals and agencies, not public funds, organizations like the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies lined up against it. With rising nativism and antisemitismeconomic troubles, and Congress asserting its independence, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was unable to support the bill, and it failed. American Jewish organizations did not challenge the decision for fear of stirring domestic antisemitism.[2]

Life and Legacy

Edith Nourse Rogers (March 19, 1881 – September 10, 1960) was an American social welfare volunteer and politician who was one of the first women to serve in the United States Congress. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Until 2012, she was the longest serving Congresswoman, now having been surpassed by Barbara Mikulski, and in her 35 years in theHouse of Representatives she was a powerful voice for veterans and sponsored seminal legislation, including the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly known as the G.I. Bill), which provided educational and financial benefits for soldiers returning home from World War II, the 1942 bill that created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), and the 1943 bill that created the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). She was also instrumental in bringing federal appropriations to her constituencyMassachusetts’s 5th congressional district.”

2 Responses to Moral Dilemma, 1938-39

  1. C R Krieger says:

    It was a terrible and tragic decision on the part of Congress, but it is not the same as actively intervening in the affairs of another nation. To attack Syria, as a sort of “brush back” pitch for the use of chemical weapons (has the UN actually nailed it down) would be be an offensive action, rather than a more defensive one. As China would be quick to point out, Sovereignty means not having other nations interfering in one’s own domestic affairs. It cuts both ways.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  2. PaulM says:

    Granted, Cliff, not the same, but you can see that the President is wrestling with a profound moral question here, which is the similarity. Someone must assert civilized norms, and not only at a time of one’s choosing. The political, social, and economic contexts in both eras are also of interest. In the face of out-of-bounds behavior on the world scene, when does one or more nations act? Note that I am not for the armed “brush back pitch” (excellent metaphor), but rather favor what I would consider a smarter but intensive non-violent response even if that action takes longer to yield. Imagine what we would have saved in blood and money if the U.S. had tracked Bin Laden from the start as the vicious leader of a multi-national criminal gang of religious extremists rather than an opposing military leader who had declared war on the U.S. The overwhelming response did not get Bin Laden quickly, but the havoc unleashed is difficult to measure. It is imperative to act, but the response should be proportional. To protect and save children is fundamental.